Stories of Refugees, Part IV: Out of Syria

Mohanad Hussein, his young wife, Hadeel, and their toddler Nusreen arrived in San Francisco 22 days before I met them. “She is 18 months and two days,” Hadeel said smiling and gesturing at her daughter who was energetically engaged in exploring the room we were in. Mohanad looked disconcertingly stiff, as though he was unsure of what to expect, and the interview started with brief responses from him: Why did the United Nations Refugee Agency select you to come to the United States? “I don’t know.” Describe your last year. “Difficult.” What did you feel when you landed? “Tired.”

I put it down to how fresh his arrival was and how alien everything must seem to this young man who was displaced from friends, family and home and suddenly found himself thrust into the arc lights of an American story. After a few minutes of persistence, I saw a gradual loosening of Mohanad’s wary rigidity. He began to elaborate, and his story took shape.

Mohanad grew up in Dara’a, in southern Syria, about eight miles from the Jordanian border. He lived in a two-story home with his parents and extended family. The ground floor level of their house was rented out to shops. After the Syrian army moved into the town, people began to leave and shops began to shutter.

His family didn’t have land or even a large property, Mohanad explained, but what they had seemed “like heaven” compared to what they saw after the war started in Syria. The Syrian army moved into their town and made it their base. Mohanad estimated that close to 50,000 people left the city after the army moved in.

When I asked Mohanad if he would consider going back to Syria, he shook his head. He had left Syria for Jordan with his wife to avoid being drafted into the Syrian army. His father and brothers had stayed behind. Mohanad had been eligible for the draft at the time the war started. Earlier, it used to be that if a man avoiding the draft had been caught, he would have been imprisoned but allowed to live; now, however, there was certain torture and death awaiting him in Syria. His father and brothers stayed back because all of them had already served before the war started, so they were not compelled to join the army.

“What did you leave behind,” I asked Mohanad. We left behind a destroyed country. We hope there will be a solution soon in Syria and that God will be with the people, he answered.

Mohanad and Hadeeel lived for three years in a Jordanian refugee camp. He would definitely advise people from the camp to come to the United States, Mohanad said. “It’s better here,” he remarked with his familiar brevity.

I asked Mohanad and Hadeel how they first met, and Hadeel giggled charmingly and explained that they were together in school. She was his brother’s wife’s sister, Mohanad interjected, and almost cracked a grin.

When I asked Hadeel to describe her home in Oakland, she said, “There’s nothing here. It’s empty.” The most important thing in her house is her daughter, she said, adding that Nusreen had become a lot tougher to handle, probably because she sees fewer people and doesn’t interact with other children.

Mohanad has found a part-time job working four hours a day. Hadeel spends the day playing with her daughter or listening to music and cooking Syrian food, like kabsa (a rice dish) and luhia (stuffed grape leaves).

Hadeel admitted to feeling bored and frustrated and isolated and wished they lived near other Syrians. Mohanad contacted Syrians in the area through Facebook, and one of his new online friends visited them and took the three of them out in his car, showing them the neighborhood and taking them shopping. This little act of kindness became the highlight of their resettled experience.

At an event organized by International Rescue Committee at SomArts Cultural Center in San Francisco on Oct. 24, Hans van de Weerd, executive director of IRC, told the people assembled that “this refugee crisis needs new solutions, not old solutions.”

“We need your ideas,” he urged the attendees. “We need you to do what it takes to make this country a welcoming country for refugees.” The crisis is unprecedented, he said. “There are 35,000 people being displaced every day … from Mosul, from Nigeria, from Aleppo.” He blamed politicians for manipulating the feelings of people and creating a climate of anger and mistrust. “Refugees are families like you and me.”

In the fiscal year 2015, 1,631 individuals and 612 families were resettled in Northern California. Only 16 percent of these individuals have university degrees. The overwhelming majority of refugees resettled in Northern California (32 percent) cannot indicate what grade they finished in school.

In my interviews with refugees, educational opportunities have been one of the key drivers of American life.

They’ve come to America for their daughter — so little Nusreen can have opportunities to study, Mohanad said. Mohanad mentioned he hadn’t studied beyond the 9th grade, and that has made him understand the value of literacy.

The young couple has embraced the fact that life in America is culturally and socially different and requires several commitments from them, including learning a new language so they can communicate with people around them. It’s tough, they admitted, but Mohanad believes strongly that all their experiences thus far have prepared them for America. It remains to be seen whether the America he came to will be the same as the one next year.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco. Over the next few weeks, this column will focus on stories of refugees who have resettled in and around San Francisco.

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